Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, op.102 (1887) [30:46]
Violin Concerto in D major, op.77 (1879) [37:51]
Adolf Busch (violin)
Hermann Busch (cello)
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Paul Kletzki (op.102)
Orchester der Stadt Basel/Hans Műnch (op.77)
rec. Palais des Fêtes, Strasbourg, 21 June 1949 (op.102); unspecified venue, Basel, 18 December 1951 (op.77)
Gosh, these are exciting performances. That's because they weren't the product of the recording studio, where performers are often - if only subconsciously - intimidated into caution by the thought that they are setting down accounts from which they will be judged in perpetuity. Instead, these are recordings taped at live concerts where the performers were caught on the risk-taking wing. As a result, there's a pervasive air of spontaneity and excitement with no suggestion of any creative self-constraints.

There are, however, at least two downsides that affect many recordings of such live performances. In the first place, not all the artists involved may be of the highest calibre. Top-flight soloists need to earn a living and that means that they sometimes accept bookings by less than impressive orchestras and conductors. At this point in his career, Paul Kletzki, several of whose recordings remain in the catalogue to this day, was still in the process of refocusing his career from composer to that of conductor and hadn’t yet achieved his full potential in the latter field. Similarly, in 1949 the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française had not yet completed the process of repairing the losses in experienced personnel caused firstly by conscription and then the expulsion of its Jewish players in the course of the Second World War.

Incidentally, there is something of a small puzzle here. In a sign of the times, in February 1949 the French broadcaster had changed its name from Radiodiffusion Française to Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF). The recording of the violin concerto on this disc, made four months later, is attributed here, as elsewhere, to the French National Radio Orchestra rather than to the Radio and Television Orchestra. Was there, I wonder, a delay before the band changed its name to match that of its sponsor or did the new name simply take a while to catch on?

While, in spite of a dull, muffled original recording, we can hear that the Swiss forces deployed in Basle in 1951 were certainly competent in their support, they too fail to match the exalted stature of their soloist. In contrast to most of its European counterparts, the Orchester der Stadt Basel - apparently a temporarily enlarged incarnation of the Basler Orchestergesellschaft's own band - had remained sheltered in neutral Switzerland from the depredations of war. All the same and even in its beefed-up form, this wasn't an orchestra to match, say, the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. Moreover, while its conductor, Hans Münch, was, it seems, a leading figure in Basle's musical circles, one has to wonder whether it was primarily that fact that won him his place on the conductor's rostrum that night.

The second drawback that often affects recordings of live performances is poorer sound quality than that obtained in professional recording studios. The late 1940s and early 1950s was actually a period when big strides were being made in studio recording techniques. When mass-produced domestic radio receivers only conveyed poor quality sound to audiences in their sitting rooms, there was little incentive for broadcasters to invest in sophisticated recording equipment that could have captured broadcast performances in finer detail.

The soloists themselves are thus the likely attraction on these recordings. It's frequently pointed out that a direct line connects Adolf Busch, via his teacher Willy Hess and the latter's own teacher Joseph Joachim, to Brahms himself but great performers almost always attain that status by adopting individual characteristics that somehow distinguish them from their rivals. Hence, in spite of that historic "link", this is Busch's - or, in the case of the double concerto, the Buschs' - Brahms, not Brahms's Brahms.

That is certainly no cause for concern, however. The D major concerto, as presented here, benefits from a strong, unfussy and direct approach in the first movement, after which Busch gives us an especially affecting adagio, even though the rather heavy-handed Basle players sometimes struggle to live up to his standards. Contemporary critical adulation, quoted in the booklet notes, was certainly very much on the right lines - even if one anonymous reviewer overshot, only to hit the buffers full-on, as it were, with his own mystical quasi-religious assessment: "a revelation for which we can only thank him [Busch], stricken and shaken [as we are] by this musical experience."

A beautifully flowing account of the slow movement is also the jewel in the crown of the Double Concerto, in which Busch's younger brother Hermann takes the cello part. In contrast to the gushing, over-the-top language of the Swiss critic quoted above, Guild Historical’s booklet note characterises this andante as "a particularly charming rendering" which certainly underplays its deeply impressive emotional impact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Busch siblings make a strikingly well-matched pair, even though the microphone seems, at times, slightly to favour the cellist while simultaneously ironing out a great deal of orchestral detail.

It will have become clear by now why, in spite of Peter Reynolds's expert re-mastering and some very informative booklet notes by Jürgen Schaarwächter of the Busch Brothers Archive in Karlsruhe, I cannot recommend these accounts as primary choices in a general collection. The modern sound that's virtually taken for granted in many of the best recent releases listed in MusicWeb International's Masterwork Index (see here) inevitably puts them ahead of this Guild Historical release as selections for comfortable listening at home. Whether those modern accounts will still be listed in the catalogues, purchased and listened to more than sixty years after they were set down, as these Busch recordings still are, is a question that is certainly harder to answer.

Rob Maynard

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